Nebraska isn't alone in having questions in 2009 in the Big XII North. Only Kansas returns a quality starting quarterback. Most North division teams have questions regarding their offensive line. And even with a whole new set of linebackers in 2009, the Huskers should have the strongest defense in the North.
On offense, I expect the offense to lean on Roy Helu as much as they can. Helu's injury problems over the last year (shoulder, knee, hamstring) raise questions about his durability, but only Missouri's Derrick Washington was more productive in the North last season. Can the offensive line clear enough running room for Helu? That's question #1 for the Huskers. Question #2 is who will step up to back up Helu? Rex Burkhead earned the nickname "Superman" in high school, but I'd rather wait to see him deliver against college competition first. Developing a solid running game helps Nebraska answer the next two questions. How will Zac Lee grow into the quarterback position? Who steps up besides the tight ends at receiver? My expectation is that a solid running game opens up the play-action pass and eases the transition for Lee. Other than Niles Paul and Menelik Holt, the Husker wide receivers have very little experience. Potential ... yes. But assuming large production out of those receivers based on "potential" is a dangerous proposition.
On defense, the Huskers should be stout up front with one of the best lines in the conference. I'm assuming that linebacker play should be better when the only returning starter is being passed up on the depth chart. The secondary improved gradually all of last season, and I expect them to show the biggest improvement this season. They talk about forcing more turnovers this season, and while nobody should expect a rerun of 2003's turnover creators, the Huskers should be able to improve significantly from 97th nationally.
So game by game:
Florida Atlantic: Solid passing game should give us a good idea as to the progress of the Husker defense. Likewise, the holes on the defensive side of the ball should allow the Husker offense to gradually warm up. Chance of Husker victory: 97%
Arkansas State: Best of the three Sun Belt opponents Nebraska will face, and might be a good tuneup for Virginia Tech. Chance of Husker victory: 90%
Virginia Tech: Consensus top-ten team, but will definitely miss running back Darren Evans. This game could send the Huskers in either direction, as a victory could spark this team into national prominence. A bad loss could remind Husker fans of last year's Missouri game. Chance of Husker victory: 30%
Missouri: On offense, both teams need to replace a quarterback, their top receivers, and a couple of offensive linemen. Both return their best running back, though. On defense, both return all-American candidates in Sean Weatherspoon and Ndamukong Suh. The difference: Nebraska's defense improved down the stretch last season while Missouri's regressed for the most part. Chance of Husker victory: 60%
Texas Tech: Nebraska almost won in Lubbock last season. While Tech needs to replace their stars, that's never slowed the Raiders down in the past. Chance of Husker victory: 70%
Iowa State: The rebuilding begins anew for the 'Clones. Chance of Husker victory: 90%
Baylor: This is a scary trap game for the Big Red. Missouri nearly lost in Waco last season. The Huskers could be looking ahead to the next game. Chance of Husker victory: 45%
Oklahoma: News flash: The Sooners are good. It should be closer than 2008...but that still probably won't be good enough. Chance of Husker victory: 15%
Kansas: Kansas could be better at their skill positions on offense...and worse everywhere else. Chance of Husker victory: 55%
Kansas State: Ron Prince seems to have run the Wildcat program into the ground. Chance of Husker victory: 90%
Colorado: Some people think Colorado is a dark horse to challenge in the North. Really? The Buffs nearly lost to Iowa State and Kansas State at home last season. This could be the end of the Dan Hawkins era in Boulder. Chance of Husker victory: 70%
How does it break out in the end? In the end, I think they'll probably lose 4 games: Va Tech, Oklahoma, and probably one or two of the following: Missouri, Texas Tech, Baylor, and Kansas. I'd like to say 9-3, but I'm hedging my bets and going with 8-4. I do think there is an upside to this season, and if everything works out the way I think it could, 10-2 or even 11-1 isn't completely out of the question.